Technology shapes our world in ways that can be obvious or discreet. And sometimes, reading tech news can be dizzying. Even folks who see themselves as tech-savvy can be disoriented by the specialized vocabulary needed to understand some tech stories.
The Washington Post is integrating an online tool that aims to break down tech jargon. Dubbed Sideways Dictionary, the tool was developed by the Post and Jigsaw, a tech incubator under Alphabet (read: Google).
The tool, which launched on March 14, uses analogies, rather than plain definitions, to explain some of the common yet esoteric vocabulary that appears in tech stories. Those words are highlighted in a story, and when clicked or tapped on, an analogy appears on the side of the screen.
“Jargon is the enemy of good storytelling,” said Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at the Washington Post, in a Washington Post blog post. “The analogies in the Sideways Dictionary mimic the natural, often verbal patterns people use when explaining unknown terms. We hope this additional context helps users better understand how a word or term is being used.”
For example, here’s a paragraph from March 7 article about a Wikileaks report about the CIA using personal electronics to spy on their users.
“Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and many other companies announced major new initiatives, in part to protect their brands against accusations by some users that they had made it too easy for the NSA to collect information from their systems. Many websites, meanwhile, began encrypting their data flows to users to prevent snooping. Encryption tools such as Tor were strengthened.”
On the Post’s website, the word “Tor” is highlighted. When clicked on, it reveals the analogy:
The goal appears to be to help out the type of reader who is interested in tech news, but doesn’t necessarily need to understand the technical ins and outs of cybersecurity, programming and other tech-centered practices and disciplines.
“Technical jargon makes it harder to understand the tools and technologies shaping our daily lives,” wrote Jigsaw executives Alfred Malmros and Justin Kosslyn in a Medium post. “And unfortunately there’s plenty about technology that can be confusing, from the encryption debate to the fuss over net neutrality.”
The analogies explain complex technological concepts using scenarios and situations that range from familiar to ridiculous. Take this analogy for the term “spam:”
It’s like an infinite number of monkeys locked in a room with an infinite number of typewriters and eventually producing the complete works of Shakespeare. Spam is sent out in ever vaster quantities as a way of playing the odds. Millions of people filter, delete or ignore it, but it only takes one response to make the exercise worthwhile.
Jigsaw recruited Nick Asbury, a U.K. branding and design writer, to write many of the initial entries. But users can submit their own entries and vote on the best ones. The Post moderates all entries so the dictionary doesn’t get taken over by trolls, which, as described by Sideways Dictionary, would be “like playing chess with a pigeon. As the old internet meme has it, however good you are at chess, the pigeon will knock over the pieces, crap on the board, and strut around claiming victory.”
A Washington Post blog post says that Sideways Dictionary can be seen in The Switch, the Post’s online tech and policy section. So far, the feature hasn’t appeared in many articles. That could be because there haven’t been many news opportunities to use it since the launch.
Whether Sideways Dictionary will prove useful to tech readers is still unclear. But this new tool highlights the need for tech writers to find ways to communicate complex but important information to the general public.